Vegan

Nutritional Yeast: Better Than Cheese?

Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun. 

Today: Make your Parmesan jealous. Nutritional yeast is pure magic -- vegan, cheesy, and utterly habit-forming.

Nutritional yeast: The name sounds healthy and vaguely scientific and prior to becoming a convert myself, I chalked it up to being an obscure, health food store staple. Vegan friends would gush over its cheese-like taste, which I always suspected was like promising someone that carob brownies will taste deeply of fudge (carob may be a lot of things, but chocolate it is not).

But then -- purely by accident -- I tried it. Hangry one afternoon, I ducked into a cramped natural foods store in Greenwich Village and snatched the first snack I saw that looked familiar: popcorn. Their homemade version was popped in coconut oil and showered in a blend of nutritional yeast, paprika, turmeric, and tamari. The first bite tasted bizarrely similar to Spicy Nacho Doritos (I do mean that as a compliment), and after downing the entire bag, I vowed to recreate it.

Since then, I’ve not only mastered the perfect "cheese" popcorn, but I've tried nutritional yeast in creamy pasta sauces, on kale chips, on real chips, in soups, and even in biscuits. 

So what is it exactly?
Nutritional yeast (often called "nooch") is an inactive yeast grown on sugar cane and beet molasses, then dried and sold in flake or powder form. It's gluten-free, and unlike regular yeast, it won’t bubble or grow or help leaven breads. An excellent source of vitamin B12, it has a savory, nutty, cheesy flavor. Use it in recipes calling for cheese -- it tastes similar to Parmesan and melts beautifully into sauces. You can find it in most health food stores in the bulk section, and increasingly in regular grocery stores in the natural foods section in jars. Be sure not to confuse it with brewer's yeast, which is an entirely different ingredient.

Try it yourself:
Nutritional yeast is beloved by vegans as a cheese substitute, but you don’t need to be avoiding dairy to fall in love with it. I eat cheese with reckless abandon (I am an equal opportunity romancer of everything from cheddar to Camembert), and I have welcomed nutritional yeast into my pantry with open arms.

Popcorn is the simplest and most subtle vehicle for enjoying nutritional yeast. Think of it as the gateway drug to the intense stuff: One day you’re casually sprinkling a touch of nutritional yeast over buttery popcorn kernels, and the next thing you know you’re slathering vegan nutritional yeast pesto on your pasta. Here are my favorite ways to use it:

No-Cheese Cheese Popcorn

Vegan Pesto

Creamy Spring Pasta

Breakfast Scramble

Asparagus Risotto

Have you tried nutritional yeast? Tell us your favorite way to use it!

First and third photos by Mark Weinberg; all others by James Ransom.

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The Food52 Vegan Cookbook is here! With this book from Gena Hamshaw, anyone can learn how to eat more plants (and along the way, how to cook with and love cashew cheese, tofu, and nutritional yeast).

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25 Comments

Kelly N. April 9, 2015
I just wanted to mention that nutritional yeast only has Vitamin B12 if it's fortified with it. If it doesn't say B12 on the label, it won't have B12, but if it's fortified, it's a great source of B12 for vegans/vegetarians, or anyone who might not eat a lot of animal products. Not that I am vegan, but in the sake of accuracy, I thought I should mention it!
 
Amanda W. March 30, 2015
If it's grown on "beet molasses" it's virtually guaranteed to be GMO (the molasses). Is it possible to find organic/non-GMO nutritional yeast?
 
HapppyBee March 29, 2015
My version of popcorn is to first drizzle with olive oil, then sprinkle on the nutritional yeast and lots of freshly ground black pepper and toss in the bowl and repeat to get the other side. Oh so addicting!
 
Cindy March 29, 2015
Sauté an onion, throw in Kale, pour in Veggie broth, a can of white beans, add some worschester sauce, cook until kale is soft then add the nutritional yeast to form a gravy. Serve alone or over brown rice. It is one of my favorite dinners
 
LE B. March 29, 2015
posie, NO WAY am i putting butter on popcorn. But imo, the whole point is getting the butter out of the equation.If the popcorn is liberally sprinkled with tamari, the finely ground nutritnl yeast should readily stick to the tamari.<br /><br />Did you recently read DrBabs' brilliant solution to getting spices to stick to her nuts, w/out oil?) She wets her hands and runs them through the almonds and then tosses them w/ spices before roasting them. Mine is the same idea w/ the tamari and nutritnl yeast sticking on the popcorn.
 
Author Comment
Posie (. March 29, 2015
Oh I love that trick of the wet hands-- going to try it! I've had success actually with just tossing the nutritional yeast on right away while the popcorn is still very hot, putting a top on, and shaking. Perhaps the steam helps it adhere. Also -- to your comment below, no idea about where "nooch" came from and it makes me think of hooch too!
 
LE B. March 29, 2015
posie, you are FUNNY! You had me hooked with your carob comment.<br />Long ago and far away, a hippie friend taught me about Tamari (and brewer's yeast) on popcorn; I loved the former, and have used it alone on any popcorn i eat. I shall now proceed w/ the Bragg's which has been unopened on my shelf for months. Look forward to reading your other suggestions as well. Congrats on this super piece!<br />(Now, what I want to know is WHO calls this 'nooch'?? as in " Nutritional yeast (often called "nooch") ". It sounds like a cross between 'hootch' and 'nookie', and I, for one, am going to make like I never read about it. End rant.)
 
Haley S. March 25, 2015
The F52 marketing team recently had a popcorn-a-thon and will agree the nutritional yeast is the key to the best homemade "cheesy" popcorn!
 
witloof March 25, 2015
I love nutritional yeast. It's a great base for a vegetarian broth. You just cook it with onions and garlic for a few minutes and then add some water. I also make a sprinkle for veg by grinding raw cashews in a blender, dry toasting them for a few minutes, then adding olive oil, paprika, chopped garlic, and nutritional yeast.
 
arcane54 March 25, 2015
My secret to getting it to stick to the popcorn is butter... lots of butter. I also make my own popcorn seasoning using nutritional yeast, a pinch of cayenne and a pinch of garlic powder. I also make a tofu seasoning mix that is largely nutritional yeast, but I bet it would be good on popcorn, too!
 
Liz V. March 24, 2015
Hey Hillpagan! This is Martha Rose Schulman's recipe! Been mKing it since 1979!
 
Liz V. March 24, 2015
Um..glad you're catching up. BB Boomers have been using this on popcorn etc for decades! Makes the best gravy and sauces! Martha Rose Schulman introduced me in the late 70's and it's been a kitchen staple. I hazard to say that maybe you grew up eating this great food without knowing.
 
Author Comment
Posie (. March 24, 2015
Oddly enough, my mother (who is a farmer and a devotee of foods like wheat germ!) never cooked with it -- but I'm happy to have finally gotten into it. Love the idea of adding it to a gravy, I am going to try that recipe immediately!
 
franneh March 24, 2015
Love these variations of using nutritional yeast. (y)
 
Loveland A. March 24, 2015
I know many who love this, so that's it! I'm sold on it! Going to try this very soon.
 
hillpagan March 24, 2015
This gravy is a great vegan staple- my grandmother used to make enchiladas with it that I loved as a kid:<br />Nutritional Yeast Gravy<br /><br />1/4 cup flour<br />1/3 cup nut. yeast<br />1/4 cup oil or margarine<br />2 cups water<br />1 Tablespoon soy sauce<br />salt & pepper to taste<br /><br />In a whiskable pot, toast the flour over med-high until you can smell it. If you burn it, throw it out and try again.<br />add & stir in the yeast.<br />add oil.<br />when bubbly, add water.<br />whisk while it cooks and thickens.<br />add soy sauce, salt & pepper to taste, serve.
 
Coco March 24, 2015
Popcorn made with nooch, ghee, olive oil, and red curry powder is upsettingly good. Here's the recipe I came up with, inspired by a tip from Alanna of Bojon Gourmet: http://www.itwasjustright.com/2015/02/09/pantheogenic-popcorn-a-k-a-the-best-popcorn-youve-ever-had/
 
Rhea March 24, 2015
I use it to make a vegan mac and cheese sauce. blend a couple tablespoons of yeast with a cup of soaked cashews. It's perfectly creamy and "cheesy"! http://hotdogfoodblog.blogspot.com
 
Debbie V. March 29, 2015
Wow! Great idea. Thanks.
 
Pegeen March 24, 2015
Does anyone know if there's a downside to eating too much nutritional yeast? Could using a lot of this yeast cause gastric problems?
 
Megan @. March 24, 2015
I just bought some nutritional yeast and can't wait to try this out! <br /><br />foodiocentric.com
 
Franca March 24, 2015
What is the secret to getting it to actually stick to the popcorn as opposed to having a mound of It at the bottom of the bowl?
 
Author Comment
Posie (. March 24, 2015
I make sure to first toss and coat the popcorn evenly with butter (or coconut oil) before sprinkling on the nutritional yeast and tossing it again. I usually end up with a bit at the bottom, but not very much. Also make sure to add your toppings while the butter or oil is still a bit warm.
 
Carolyn C. March 24, 2015
I like to pulverize it with a little salt in a mortar and pestle before sprinkling on. Sticks much better and coats more evenly.
 
louisez March 24, 2015
My favorite use of nutritional yeast is in kale chips (per my recipe for Southwestern Cool Ranch kale chips on this site). Another favorite is the cashew "parmesan" from the Candle 79 cookbook.